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Indigenous Peoples: The Issue of Poverty and the Importance of Good Policy

Harry A. Patrinos's picture

Indigenous Peoples make up 4 percent of the world’s population yet account for over 10 percent of the world’s poor. The Development Community cannot afford to ignore Indigenous Peoples if it aims to achieve the international development goals.

In our recent book, Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development (edited by Gillette Hall and Harry A. Patrinos), several issues threatening indigenous peoples today, are highlighted. The book provides a study of Indigenous Peoples and ethnic minorities (and scheduled tribes) for most of the countries with the largest indigenous/ethnic minority populations, namely India and China, along with three countries in Africa (Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon), Lao PDR and Vietnam, and has updates from six Latin American countries, which we had analyzed in our earlier work on Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Human Development in Latin America: 1994-2004.

We set out to estimate poverty rates for Indigenous Peoples and compare them with national rates, and opine on what policies might matter. But really what we were and are advocating for is more work on Indigenous Peoples and the impact of national policies on minorities. We use traditional economic analyses and national poverty rates; not because we don’t value alternative means of well-being, but because we believe that for cultures to survive, prosper, and develop on their own terms, they also need to surpass a certain, basic, minimum level of material well-being.
Key Findings

Our recent findings are hardly surprising, and sobering; yet we find some surprises. The experience of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America shows that despite progress on many fronts – political, social, educational, services and so on – poverty is not reduced. The poverty gap was the same at the beginning of the first decade for Indigenous Peoples as it was at the end of the decade. In some cases the poverty gap even increased. 

In the other countries included in this new study, we find overall that poverty is higher among Indigenous People and ethnic minorities (and scheduled tribes). This is despite improved social indicators for Indigenous Peoples in most countries. Moreover, there has been little or no improvement in incomes or in the reduction of poverty rates over time for Indigenous Peoples in most of the countries studied.

We find some surprises as to where gains were made. 

For one, Chile appears to be an outlier in Latin America. Chile has seen a significant decline in national poverty which coincides with sustained economic growth. This shows that good public policies can lead to growth, which tends to improve socioeconomic outcomes for the whole population. Without good policies that benefit the whole country, one gets unbalanced growth, social turmoil, and a lack of progress for indigenous peoples and minorities.

The example of China is also surprising. In no other country did ethnic minorities (or indigenous peoples) experience a decline in poverty that was quicker than that for non-ethnic minorities. China’s success is driven by good overall economic policy and by targeting disadvantaged regions – rarther than people.

By contract, in most of Latin America, programs that target indigenous peoples fail to produce the expected results.  The reasons are manifold, including poor design, inadequate implementation, excessive leakage, lack of evaluation, and no link to economic forces. Therefore, more programs that target the poor or poor areas, as is the case in the conditional cash transfer programs, could be much more useful in the case of Latin America.

There is no substitute for good policy. This is as true for national policy as it is for the international community. We can’t make progress on global poverty reduction without considering the needs of the world’s indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. We need to work towards creating real economic development programs which extend opportunities for indigenous peoples.

Click here for more information on the book “Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development “. Also follow Harry Patrinos on the Education for the Global Development Blog and the World Bank Education twitter feed.



Submitted by Emily on

I think that providing better access to higher education is probably the most promising way of improving the situation of indigenous communities around the globe, like the Ford International Fellowships Program (IFP) has done over the last 12 years. Perhaps you'd be interested in writing about those success stories?

Over the past decade, 225 students from indigenous communities in Mexico have successfully completed rigorous masters and doctoral degree programs at national and international universities, and are now helping to solve long-standing problems suffered by people in some of the country’s poorest and most remote areas. These indigenous students from Mexico were supported by IFP, which has enabled more than 4,000 emerging social justice leaders from around the world to pursue advanced degrees at more than 600 universities in almost 50 countries.

In Mexico, as well as in Guatemala, Peru, Chile and Brazil, IFP successfully recruited a total of more than 1,000 fellows from indigenous, Afro-descendant and other marginalized communities. These fellows are now strong and influential voices advocating for the rights and education of these communities throughout the region.

In 2001, the Ford Foundation granted $280 million—the largest single donation in the Foundation’s history—to IFP. This new initiative set out to prove that an international scholarship program could help build leadership for social justice, and thus contribute to broader social change. By working closely with local partner organizations around the world, IFP was able to recruit and select candidates from marginalized communities, where factors like ethnicity, gender, location, or disability often prevent access to higher education. Today, approximately 82% of IFP Fellows have returned home to implement what they have learned.

IFP’s results demonstrate that with robust academic and personal support networks, students from the world’s poorest regions can perform competitively with their more privileged peers.

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